On “Unlikeable” Characters

On “Unlikeable” Characters

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the subject of fictional characters and “likeability.” Probably because I’m writing again, but also because it’s a topic dear to my heart, since so many readers found Anne, in Place Last Seen deeply unlikeable (go take a look at the Amazon reviews if you don’t believe me). Patrick and I used to laugh about it, because we both thought I’d pulled my punches and had made her sympathetic, or at least much more sympathetic than in her earlier incarnations. I wasn’t entirely surprised when she was greeted with a hail of criticism because I’d already weathered a couple of years of graduate workshop populated by writers doing Katherine Mansfield-esque odes to their idyllic childhoods, and whose consistent response to Anne was “no mother would do that!” (A response that indicated to me that I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing with the character.) At any rate, I didn’t want her to be “normal” — what would be the interest in that, either as a writer, or as a reader? I wanted her to be odd; to be Anne.

So I was Googling around when I came across Emily St. John Mandel’s terrific essay at The Millions, In Praise of Unlikeable Characters, an essay that caused me to fire up the Kindle and download Bad Marie. It’s a terrific read, which is such a pleasure these days. a book that really sucks you in and in which many things actually happen, and that has characters in whom you become deeply invested. Marie does indeed do some very “bad” things, but Marcy Dermansky does such a good job writing her from the inside that you get sucked in, and nod along in agreement that of course, Marie’s is the only logical course of action. She makes her sympathetic without necessarily making her likeable. You always doubt her — especially since so many other characters tell her how bad she is. It is that seed of doubt that lurks, no matter how much one might be rooting for Marie that that made me feel the book pulled it’s big punch. I won’t give away the plot point, but there is a moment very late in the book, after you’ve seen Marie act in many impulsive and unwise and even vengeful ways, where she comes right to the precipice of doing something truly monstrous. And while the naive reader part of me, the part of me that really does believe somehow that characters are people, and who comes to care about them (the part of me that still feels guilty for breaking Jonathan’s leg for plot purposes at the end of Place Last Seen), while that reader was glad that Marie didn’t go over the precipice, the cold-hearted novelist in me wishes she had.

No one writes books like that any more. Books that take a character all the way over the edge. (Or perhaps no one who writes like that can get them published, another discussion altogether.) I was trolling around in the Paris Review’s newly-opened interview archives and in David Mitchell’s interview he talks about reading Nabokov, and trying to figure out what he was up to:

I used to read Nabokov with an X-ray on, trying to map the circuitry of what he was doing and how he was doing it. Lolita is an act of seduction. This is a lovable rogue, you think, this Humbert Humbert. How interesting life is in his company! Then there’s a place where, toward the end—and this is one of the most chilling scenes in English literature—he realizes that Lolita has lost her magic. She’s not the pliant young fairy she once was. But it’ll be OK, he thinks, because I can have a daughter through her and start all over again. That’s when you know you’ve really been had here—this Humbert figure is a damaged, dangerous piece of work, and you’ve been riding along happily in his car for a hundred and fifty pages.

There’s a corresponding problem to the “likeability” problem (and not that all women must have pink high-heeled shoes on the covers of their books) and that’s the flip side, the total monster — at it’s best, you get someone like Dostoyevski, at it’s worst, you get Hannibal Lecter or American Psycho, books that are only about an unredeemable character, that plumb the depths and claim, by doing so, to be breaking new ground. Those aren’t the unlikeable characters I’m interested in — the ones I’m interested in are like that family member that you can never figure out, or the friend about whom you continually find yourself saying “how could she do that?” Someone who seems just like us, but who isn’t — and it’s that difference that makes it interesting. What makes someone like that tick? Are they really “bad”? I love the exploration of that murky ground, and I especially like it when the author resists the urge to “heal” the character, resists the therapeutic narrative of our age. They’re hard to find though, which is why I find myself turning back to Elizabeth Bowen, or Mavis Gallant, writers who had their gimlet eyes firmly fixed on the flaws of human character.

So readers, in the comments, tell us who your favorite “unlikeable” character is, and why?

7 thoughts on “On “Unlikeable” Characters

  1. Charlotte, this is a fascinating concept to me because I am definitely guilty of being one of those readers I consider shallow for our rejection out-of-hand of an unlikable main character. I can tolerate peripheral nasties, but if the focal character fails to grab my sympathy, I almost certainly will not enjoy the book. Yet, I do think less of myself for feeling this way. I actually never thought of this from the perspective of the author *intentionally* crafting a character toward whom the readers will feel antipathy. (Well, except of course for the likes of Harry Potter’s Snape. The ones who are *supposed* to be evil, don’t rub me the wrong way.) What, does that mean I think the characters have a life of their own and come full-blown and unchangeable to the mind of the writer? Ridiculous! Truly, you have given me a great deal to think about here. I’ll go back to my little log of books and see which ones I’ve marked as wretched. (I know there was at least one fairly recent John Irving book — maybe “Until I Find You” or “The 4th Hand” that affected me that way, but the memory of those two has blessedly blurred already :-)) If I can remember this sort of character “flaw” having contributed to that opinion, I’ll comment here again, and for *sure* I will read with a more open mind in the future. Thanks for that!

  2. This isnt exactly what you asked, but. My brother in law had the sort of mother who would criticize him mercilessly at his wedding in front of his new in laws — she asked my sister in law WHY she would marry her awful son — and yet she paid for 4 years of braces. I have never been able to understand that. If she thought he was worthless, why did she shell out hundreds of dollars in braces? I’ve been looking for her in novels, hoping for understanding, but havent found her.

    1. Jennifer, try Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout. It’s a terrific portrait of a difficult woman, who thinks she’s being perfectly reasonable. And Carroll — I’m with you in a lot of cases. For example, I can’t really read either Updike or Kundera, two brilliant writers, because their misogynism drives me right out of the book. As a writer though, I’m not necessarily trying to entertain someone, I’m trying to explore something I don’t understand — hence, my fascination with unlikeable, but not evil, characters (although Humbert Humbert is in a class of his own).

  3. Olive Kitteredge! Great example of a protagonist with whom I might never have forged a successful relationship in real life, but whose story (stories) I loved. And also, I’ve never read a book done in quite that format before. Mind you, I’m sure it’s not a new concept, just new to me. I found it fascinating!

  4. Lisbeth Salander. She may be a stunted, autistic, thieving, murdering, nutcase; but you root for her all the way through the Millennium trilogy. You ‘know’ that she’s really not nuts, rather acting sanely in response to a challenging upbringing. There’s a feminist tension throughout the trilogy, as personified in Salander. Horrible things are happening to women, but you know the schmucks will generally get their comeuppance. Well, you don’t actually know that, and it keeps you on the edge of your seat. There are tons of other fabulous unlikable characters in the series, of which I think Neiderman was my favorite. The scenes were always interesting and the pace quickened when he popped up.

    BTW Charlotte, Salander’s life reminds me that I’m really looking forward to you writing a book about how positive brother/sister relationships can be!

    Wendy the Buddhist

    PS. I enjoyed Lisbeth Salander, Neiderman, and the Millennium trilogy so much that I really want to visit Sweden. Let’s face it – murder, human trafficking, right-wing Nazis, corrupt government agencies, and creepy motorcycle gang – Sweden is clearly a country where an American could fit right in!

  5. I really didn’t like either of the main character’s in Elizabeth McCracken’s Niagara Falls All Over Again, but the world of vaudeville was fascinating and I enjoyed the book. The narrator in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres is no fun at all, but then again, neither was anyone in King Lear! Goneril, now there’s a gripping & repelling character.

    I’m surprised that people didn’t like Anne. It’s been a few years since I read Place Last Seen, but I recall her as a realistic human, and woman, and mother – in that order. Anyone who’s endured any sort of tragedy knows how weird it gets – no one emerges from a situation like the one Anne faced without getting to know the true dimensions of their own self. And that’s rarely a gentle ride. I found her reactions and behavior refreshing.

  6. My favorite book is probably “Lolita”, and its main character, Humbert Humbert is both a terribly touching man and a downright pervert.
    And being able to fascinate readers with an unlikeable character is probably the definition of excellence in a writer.

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